Monday, April 09, 2007

The Fordyce

Hot Springs National Park has an odd layout. The modern city of Hot Springs is a two-lobed territory connected by a strip of land bordering Central Ave. (Bath House Row). The northern lobe is completely surrounded by the national park, while the other lobe abuts the park for several miles. With its agglomeration of chain retailers and more local businesses, the town’s streets look pretty much like a lot of other small cities’ thoroughfares, though south of the national park on Central Ave. is a large racetrack that seemed to be quite a draw.

The west side of Central Ave. is privately owned, with various buildings occupied by businesses mostly catering to tourists. The east side of the same street is part of the national park, with eight ornate buildings in a row that once were the heart of the bath house industry in Hot Springs: the Superior, the Hale, the Maurice, the Fordyce, the Quapaw, the Ozark, the Buckstaff and the Lamar. The existing buildings of Bath House Row date mostly from the 1910s and ’20s, replacing older facilities during a period of when the nation was flush and transportation improving, but people still believed in the efficacy of taking the waters. At their peak in 1946, the waters attracted about a million visitors a year – remarkable considering the total US population at the time wasn’t quite 150 million.

The Fordyce is now the park’s visitor center, and offers tours of its elaborate facilities – self-guided, but at a good price, free. The building style, Spanish Renaissance Revival, is supposed to pay tribute to Hernando de Soto, who supposedly came this way. No fancy bath houses were necessary for passing Spaniards, Indians or other early visitors, however, who apparently soaked in pools fed by the springs wherever they found them.

The Fordyce, on the other hand, was completed in 1915 and has rooms that wouldn’t have been out of place on some of the luxury liners of the day, especially the third-story lounge. “Here, under a wonderful ceiling of art glass in five remarkable pastels, amid lavish decorations and furnishings, social groups may gather at ease and listen to music,” said an advertising brochure about the facility from its early years (piano music, it should be noted, for the room had one). “Opening to the south is a ladies' parlor and music room, with the gentlemen's parlor and billiard room at the other extreme.”

The bathing and therapy rooms, while not quite so ornate, were elaborate enough, sporting a host of devices mostly obscure these days, such as Zander mechano-therapy equipment, sitz tubs, Hubbard tubs and various other hydrotherapy-related items. The one that inspired the most disquiet, for me anyway, was a deep pool and series of boards and straps and other devices that provided some kind of mercury treatment for syphilis. There were even steam cabinets, the sort you see in old movies and cartoons, but which I’d never actually seen myself. They too were a little disquieting, probably because I’d seen at least one murder committed in a movie by locking someone in a steam cabinet (a Charlie Chan movie? Something I saw some Saturday afternoon.)


At 9:35 PM, Blogger Geof Huth said...


A national park I haven't visited... Just so you know I'm jealous!



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